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Trade Deal Among Premiers Looking Less Likely

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WHITEHORSE — Canada's 13 premiers have one more day to close what they keep calling a tantalizingly near deal to open provincial borders to trade.

But that long-awaited goal may have actually receded during Thursday's talks.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard's jaunty "I think it's possible'' Thursday morning had become "I'm not giving up on the possibility of a deal while we are here'' by day's end.

An Alberta government spokeswoman acknowledged that province's Premier Rachel Notley and her Saskatchewan colleague Brad Wall had referred differences on markups on beer to officials after failing to resolve them in a private meeting.

Couillard said a deal could go through without including the always-contentious issue of alcohol, but suggested that would be a poor second choice.

whitehorse premiers meeting
Canada's premiers pose for a photo during a meeting in Whitehorse on Thursday. (Photo: Canadian Press)

"We want these issues resolved while we are here,'' he said.

The almost-but-not-quite shrug came at the end of a day during which the provincial and territorial leaders took on everything from carbon pricing to legalizing marijuana to support for Syrian refugees to health care funding.

The main discussion on health care was to happen Friday, with premiers looking to have Ottawa increase funding to 25 per cent from the current average of 20 per cent. Some premiers were concerned whether new money would come with strings attached.

"We want these issues resolved while we are here.''

"We know what to do, what we need is the means to do better,'' said Couillard. "At some point we'll want to engage them in funding rather than on policy.''

Others weren't as worried.

"Money's money, at the end of the day,'' said B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who said she'd be prepared to consider targeted federal funds for services such as mental health.

Host Premier Darrell Pasloski of Yukon said the premiers agreed that funds for specific health-care goals need to be considered as part of the overall system.

"We need to bring all the discussions together with finance as well,'' he said. "We need to have a policy discussion and a finance discussion at the same time.''

rachel notley philippe couillard premiers meeting
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard are seen on Thursday during a meeting of Canada's provincial leaders in Whitehorse. (Photo: Canadian Press)

The premiers also announced their intention to lead a trade mission to Europe and the U.K. some time in 2017.

Asked about recent comments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the need for a national price on carbon, Wall bristled at the fact Trudeau spoke about the issue before a federal-provincial working group had a chance to report on it — although Trudeau said nothing about how that price would implemented.

"If that's to be a legitimate process, why then is the prime minister and the environment minister seemingly precluding the work of the committee?'' Wall asked. "With the previous government, there wasn't much talk about working collaboratively so there were no surprises, but, frankly, I'm not sure which is better.''

"I would hope we can develop a national approach, a co-operative approach.''

Several premiers said they want quick action from the federal government on the legalization of marijuana to prevent a patchwork of enforcement and distribution across the country.

"I would hope we can develop a national approach, a co-operative approach,'' said Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister. Clark echoed Pallister's worries around public health, safety and distribution.

The meeting is scheduled to wrap up Friday.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

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